The First Universalist Society of Holmes Hole (a village in the town of Tisbury) was established in 1860 by Bro. Bruce of Sippican following several itinerant Universalist and Unitarian minister Vineyard visits to preach during the 1700 and 1800’s. It met in the abandoned Congregational church on Spring Street which is now the Tisbury Town Hall.
In 1867 Rev. Daniel Waldo Stevens was sent by the American Unitarian Association as a missionary to minister to the seamen using the outer Holmes Hole harbor when in need of refuge, repairs or supplies. Rev. Stevens established the Seamen’s Reading Room and Chapel on a bluff overlooking the harbor which was heavily used by ships traveling between Boston and New York.
As Bro. Bruce had moved on and the Universalists were having difficulty finding a minister for each Sunday, the American Unitarian Association offered Rev.Stevens to provide their Sunday services on a contract basis in addition to his regular duties. Thus the First Universalist Society changed its name to the Church of the Unity. This arrangement lasted only four years but by 1880 the Church of the Unity had failed. By then, many townspeople then attended the Chapel Sunday services.
The Seamen’s Reading Room and Chapel flourished until the death of Rev. Stevens in 1891. Rev. Stevens had been interested in a church being built here. The Stevens Memorial Chapel was built and paid for near Rev. Stevens Reading Room and Chapel in 1896 by the Channing Conference of the American Unitarian Association. The Unitarian Society of Vineyard Haven, (formerly Holmes Hole), was formed two years later. The first Society president was Capt. Gilbert L. Smith, a retired whaling captain who served 27 years. Capt. John Reynolds, also a retired whaling captain served for the next seven. The Parish Committee solicited funds for the minister’s salary and the Women’s Alliance raised the funds for all other operating expenses.
The chapel was moved “closer to the village” in 1904 and funds were raised to purchase our Hook and Hastings organ in 1905.
With only two brief exceptions, ministers were available only in the summer. Sometimes services were held in homes with sermons being read. However the Women’s Alliance met all year.
By 1942, following WW I, the depression and facing WW II, the Women’s Alliance folded. The congregation had not attracted new, younger members. Facing failure, the American Unitarian Association and the Channing Conference introduced Rev. Karl Nielsen who helped the congregation reform to become a summer church with a budget and a pledge campaign. Rev. Nielsen was the winter minister in Sarasota, FL. In addition to Sunday services, he began a series of Forums (discussions of current topics) for which the speakers were the intellectuals amongst the summer residents. These were very successful.
Following the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1960, the Society became the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard. The Channing Conference sold the Chapel to the UUSMV Trustees for $1.00 in 1963. When the distinguished Rev. Max Kapp came to be our minister in 1970, the Society again began year-round services. He was followed by Rev. Kenneth J. Smith in the 1980’s, by three other ministers in the 1990s, and by Reverend Judy Campbell in the 2000s. In the 1990’s efforts were made to have a Religious Education program. In the 2000’s this RE program has become vibrant.  In 2005 UUSMV became a Welcoming Congregation. In 2021-2022 our Consulting Minister is Reverend Dr. Robert (Rob) M. Hardies. Our Administrative Assistant is Ann Cilfone.

Read more:

Daniel Waldo Stevens


Stevens Chapel Building History

Read about the first presidents of the Society.  Whaling Captains #2A

Read the Society’s minutes from 1942-1946   Minutes of the Society 1942 to 1946

Read the By-Laws from 1898 and see who the Society’s members have been since then   BY-LAWS 1898 and Membership

Read issues from the first newsletter of Early Universalists on MV   Early Universalists

Read about UUSMV from 1898-1942  UUSMV 1898-1942

Captain Gilbert Smith